Not much to say beforehand on this one. 1950s American film-noir written / directed by Billy Wilder.
I don’t know what you’ve come to expect from my film club analyses or criticisms, but I hope that by now you are not expecting film criticism. I am almost sorry that my approach to these write-ups are so inconsistent that they seem to me to always need some sort of preface; I’ll explain later how the preface is necessary, but for now, I’ll justify it by saying upfront that I, in general, have less interest in pointing out any rhetorical, dramatic, or historical significance from films than I do in relating them to things that happen to be on my mind. Besides, this is more true to how I think the impression of film and, more generally, the experience of art, works - which is to say that it’s more the process of projecting themes onto topical concerns than it is of situating a work in relation to the evolution of its medium. I definitely see the appeal of becoming a film nerd, especially were I wanting to make a movie, but my main focus for now is in the humanities found through film. All that I can really share is a narrative of personal sentiments, anything else would either be a sentiment disguised as some truth or some plagiarized sentiment that I’ve gathered from someone else’s feeling. And so the preface is here to characterize the specific relationship I’m about to make with a film.
Ok, on to the preface:
A few months ago, Nam had suggested that we watch a John Oliver segment on the Brazilian election, since she’d heard that it was good. My reaction had been that I generally don’t like this show. Nam, inquisitive as she is, pressed me about what I disliked about it. I hesitated, and ended up giving the easy criticism, which is that his show takes on an almost entirely exasperated tone, which, for obvious reasons, is not a useful reaction toward one’s own dissatisfaction.
This is fair, but don’t think it’s very satisfying. I remembered the dissatisfying response the next morning and thought through some other straightforward responses that could have been made: The fact that most of its assessments are made under the shelter of liberal-cult humor, which is so inviolable in these parts, adds to why it seems to be more of a distraction than a source from which to understand current affairs. He’s usually self-deprecating, which is a rhetorical resource for weak arguments, and on and on, such criticisms are not hard to find since it is itself not a source that takes itself to be a source, but rather as a strange program which, through a delicate mixture of news and entertainment in the newscast format, attempts to criticize the strange medium of TV news, repeatedly pointing at how that medium offers bits of actual news but shrouded in tangles of indirection motivated by various webs of incentives.
But there is a connection to be found between John Oliver and Ace in the Hole.
At the surface, the film is an indictment of media, and it is not subtle in this regard. From the perspective of our time, the criticisms that this film might lay upon media come to tired eyes. It depicts the small time news outlet to be at least ostensibly maintained by principles of integrity, but shows that such institutions have a difficult time monitoring the extent to which it is following in those principles. It shows large news outlets unabashedly treating stories as opportunities to sell papers and to bolster reputations of distinction among each other. It shows that the individual journalist recognizes the significance that a ‘big break’ would have on his livelihood, and that this can tempt him toward exaggeration. Good reporters seem to be charming, and not by accident. Outrageousness is sought by, and so served to, the public. It shows that regular people who have evidence to blow whistles, find it easier remain tacit, and that they won’t get much for exposing deception, anyway.
This is the 1950s, All of this still does, or should, serve the modern paranoia around interpreting news, or by a similar extension, mass media. These are all real and difficult ethical dilemmas brought about by freedom of publishing, the freedom of individuals in choosing what they believe to be true, and capital efficiency as a means to decide the structure of information channels.
One of the more interesting phenomena that this film focuses on is of social constructivism: that if you want to tell the truth, but a very specific truth, you can do it, so long as you have some power to make it the truth. This phenomena has been present with humanity for a very long time, but only with the advent and tuning of mass media in the 20th century has it been able to operate on the social scale of nations and at the time scale of current events.
One thing that struck me when thinking about what exactly was so aesthetically off to me about John Oliver was a thought process that went something like this: John Oliver is to pop culture what John Stewart was to TV News, and both accomplish a similar effect in the same way. On the one hand, these shows get at the fact that it is difficult to think about the news or pop culture because the collective thing is some massive mixture of real information alongside false information that is presented through some mixture of earnestness, deceit, and ignorance, making it difficult to discern the validity of any one chunk from another, sure, but if you watch enough of it, what they really condemn, more than how information is inconsistent with reality, is the extent to which the information presented, whether real or false or the product of some lithe insecurity of a single journalist, is self-fulfilling, and so retroactively justifiable as prophecy, which fuels a misguided cycle of conviction. The thematic narrative of the shows boil down to the message that either TV news or popular belief purport to report on current affairs, but have instead started to participate in mass intuition priming, which eventually serves to bring into existence a social reality consistent with the supposed social reality, but which, without its intervention, would not be the reality. They are repeatedly suggesting that journalism has been able to do this is by way of a subtle shift of framing through which journalism is being narrated. Specifically: journalism is no longer X happened, but rather: this is how you should relate to X. You can make out that it’s saying between the lines: Social constructivism is made possible by mass distribution, and that there is something grotesque about recognizing this and then deliberately participating in the practice. Whether or not the show recognizes that this is the very means by which it produces its own mixture of polemics and entertainment is the self-inconsistency I think I really find unsettling about it. If it is the case that they play on this, and that that’s the joke of the show—to expose this type of structure by participating in it—then it seems to be negating it’s own principles–that social affairs should be summarized, criticized, and laughed at, because if that is their premise, and they succeed in it, then they can’t be saying anything. It becomes distracting noise, which has less information than disinformation. I’ve been on record saying that hypocrisy is not appreciated deeply enough, but just seems like entropy, which is the enemy and can’t be appreciated.
So, Nam, that is maybe closer to why I don’t like John Oliver’s show.
But I do like this film, in no small part because the tone is, in contrast, more ambivalent. I am generally less interested in condemning social reality than I am in trying to recognize what’s happened and then to try and understand some mechanisms by which it came about. This film is labelled as noir, which is a somewhat ambiguous thing to talk about. It seems that the genre originally referred to a certain set of thematic, stylistic, and topical elements, which as far as I can tell means: a black and white art deco style, a plot around organized crime in 1920s America, featuring a lonesome and hard-boiled protagonist. That style has been responded to, elaborated, and bred with other styles, making it today a very broad family of works that includes many sub classifications. This film seems to have kept the protagonist, swapped prohibition-era issues for 1950s journalism, and been shot in what was modern popular style. And I think that the most characteristically noir element of the film, Chuck Tatum, is where I found most of my interest after watching it. He reminds me, and not by mistake, since they accomplish a similar thing through a similar means, of Dovstoevsky’s underground man or of Tolstoy’s Ivan Illich as he begins to understand that he’s dying. The noir lead is characteristically insincere, and feels necessarily so, without hopes of reversion. He is mostly ambivalent toward his own cynicism, as he straddles a unique sense of lucidity with respect to social reality that is juxtaposed with a profound sense of alienation. He tends to be both grateful and scornful of some painful past. Memories of the past often serve as the only stimulus for any real expressions of joy or sorrow, underscoring the suggestion that his reality is confined to a dream world in his head, leaving the narrative feeling slightly mysterious since you get the sense that most of what you need to understand his behavior is coming to you unspoken. This kind of character is interesting to both audience members who are well-integrated socially as well as those who aren’t since it tries to illustrate what sorts of social truths one can come to recognize having declared a kind of permanent independence from the social structure, making this hero either piquant or instructive.
It goes to show that the endeavor of journalism confronts the journalist with much the same situation in which I am faced with these film write-ups. And a preface like the one I’ve given here is more or less the implicit preface to the stories we read in the papers or the segments we see on TV; it can’t help but to be.
When I finished with this write-up I realized that it was structured in such a way that the pretext had unknowingly foreshadowed it’s argument, and given its content, I thought twice on whether or not to start again in a different direction, else it seem like some contrived postmodern gimmick, but in the end decided that it is what I’d somehow ended up with and that I’d better just present it. So there you have it, I’ll see you next time.
Aside: The film’s Wikipedia page lists that the film turned out to be a commercial failure, that it had been the largest film set in North American to date, and that Warner Brothers had after the fact opened the set to the public for admission fare. Whether or not they appreciated the irony in their somewhat desperate attempt to spin unpopularity into commercial fanfare, we can only guess, but I found it funny.